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A romance scam cost one local woman $718,000 – and she isn't alone

Among the wealthy men advertising for a life partner, Marvin Roecker seemed like a good catch.

After all, he was on and his constant wooing – the intimate phone calls, romantic texts and personal online messages – strongly suggested he was serious about the Western New York woman he met online.

And then came the big "ask."

Roecker, it seems, was in the midst of a $7 million deal to sell dried cocoa beans to Kraft Heinz, but he needed extra cash to pay for the shipping and insurance.

When he asked his new friend, a highly paid, white-collar professional, for the money, he promised to repay it, plus interest. He also promised her a romantic relationship.

In the end, he reneged on both, and the woman is now out $718,000.

From the criminal complaint against Jason Osei Bonsu.

"People make bad decisions when they're in vulnerable places," said Jason Fickett, a supervisory special agent for the FBI in Buffalo.

Turns out the local woman was the victim of a romance scam, a crime that investigators say is on the rise here and across the country.

Nationally, there were 14,546 victims of romance scams, men and women, last year, and they were cheated out of $219 million, according to the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center.

More often than not, the victims are women older than 50, often widowed or divorced, and frequently savvy about computers and social media.

"They're all looking for love," Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott S. Allen Jr. said.

On the other end of those texts, phone calls and emails are criminals, many of them in foreign countries, posing as available and wealthy single men and women.

"Mr. Roecker"

In the case of the local woman who lost $718,000, she received a photo of Roecker, a photo that she later learned was someone else, a Realtor in Texas. The Realtor's name is not Marvin Roecker, and the FBI says there is no evidence he knew about the scheme.

No one is certain who was behind the Roecker persona, but two men, both of them citizens of Ghana, have been charged with taking part in the scam.

Jason Osei Bonsu and Adams Amen were arrested last month while in the United States and recently appeared in a Buffalo courtroom to face federal fraud charges. They also face likely deportation.

Investigators say the local case is a mirror of the romance scams they see across the country.

"A typical part of these schemes is the continuing dialogue between the victim and perpetrator," said Robert J. Gross, a supervisory special agent for the FBI in Buffalo.

Typically, the scammers use their initial contacts with the victim to build trust and rapport, and the communication is often intimate, even romantic.

"They're trying to figure out what buttons to push," Gross said, "and if they're really good, the victims won't even know their buttons are being pushed."

Other victims

The local woman is not the only one who fell victim to Bonsu and Amen, according to court papers. The two men also are accused of cheating a man in South Dakota out of $72,500 as part of a separate romance scam.

The man was apparently told his money would pay for shipping and insurance costs associated with an inheritance, including a large quantity of gold.

As part of their scheme here, Amen and Bonsu spent three months communicating with their female victim through cellphone and email accounts established under Marvin Roecker's name, according to the criminal complaints filed against them.

Prosecutors say that kind of recruitment period is typical.

"It's just continuous over time," Allen said of the texts, phone calls and emails criminals use to woo a victim.

In February of last year, the woman still hadn't met Roecker, but she wired him $65,000, the first of five payments. She made her final wire transfer in April, this time for $465,000 in cash.

Roecker, as part of his deal with the woman, had agreed to fly to the United States to be with her once his cocoa beans were shipped, and he provided an airline itinerary indicating when he would arrive in Buffalo.

Even after that final payment, Roecker  made a last-ditch attempt to get even more money out of the victim, investigators say.

He – or they – arranged fake phone calls from "authorities" in Ghana, saying Roecker had been stopped at the airport because he was trying to take gold out of the country without proper documentation, the FBI says in its complaints.

When the caller asked for money to cover the additional costs, the local woman balked.

"At that point, she realized she had been had," Gross said.

14,000 victims

Investigators suspect others were victimized by the scam and point to the high number of romance schemes – an estimated 80 to 90 percent – that go unreported.

Obviously, one reason is embarrassment. Victims of romance scams tend to lose more money than victims of other cyber-related frauds.

In 2016, the more than 14,000 men and women who fell victim to romance schemes finished 11th in the FBI's ranking of cyber crime victims across the nation.

But those same victims lost more money than the victims in all but one other kind of cyber crime that the agency tracked.

The other hurdle facing investigators is the fact that many of these predators are based in foreign countries such as Nigeria and Russia, making arrests and prosecutions difficult.

Amen and Bonsu are natives of Ghana, but they were arrested while traveling in the United States. Investigators believe Ghana is a hotbed of romance scammers.

More and more, according to the FBI, predators are becoming increasingly sophisticated, and one aspect of that is their increasing use of social media in identifying potential victims. They look for men and women who post openly about their dreams and life goals, and they often exploit personal information in making their initial contact.

For Fickett, there are lessons to be learned from what other men and women have gone through.

"Social media is the avenue these people use to access their victims," he said. "Be careful about the information you share and be careful about who you share it with."

For Allen, the prosecutor handling the Bonsu and Amen cases, there is one obvious red flag that almost always pops up in romance scams.

"If a person you've never met asks you for money, it's probably a good thing to avoid," he said.

Defense attorneys for Bonsu and Amen said they could not comment at this time.

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